Aquaponics: How We Got Started

How We Began (Glenn)

I stumbled across Aquaponics (the art of raising fish to fertilize plants – that clean the water and re-circulate the water back to the fish) when preparing the documentation for the Olomana Gardens Certified Organic application in 2008.

It was necessary to collect the information and research allowable ways to grow crops using fish effluent water. For years, Olomana Gardens had been operating a “flow through” system of running diverted stream water though our Koi ponds and then to the duck swimming pond (picking up Duck manure) and then flowing through our taro field to end in our Lotus/Azolla pond for nutrient removal, and then overflow back to the wild stream.

Due to the recent E. coli scares on the mainland and on Kauai, we wanted to get way from the duck-fertilized water and go with just fish effluent, especially for vegetable crops that are consumed raw. It is interesting that only the warm blooded mammals breed E. coli in their digestive system, whereas fish are cold blooded and cannot harbor the E. coli. Thus fish are safer in food production systems.

Let’s get one fact out of the way. Yes, the Chinese have been doing fish integrated farming for 3000 plus years, but here in America, we are just discovering and researching the methods and potentials for backyard CLOSED SYSTEM re-circulating systems, called Aquaponics. There are also larger commercial Aquaponics
operations, up to 30 million dollar systems in Australia. It is a new science and few colleges or universities offer degrees in the subject. Odd, since many offer Aquaculture (fish rearing) and Hydroponics (soilless gardening).

What is interesting to us, and relevant to families in residential areas in Hawaii, is that an aquaponics system can be scaled down to a backyard operation for feeding one’s family, or even to a mini system on a condo lanai. In Australia there are over a 1000 installed backyard Aquaponic systems. Currently the Australians lead the world in off the shelf systems that satisfy the needs of backyard Aquaponics. Google “Backyard Aquaponics” and the Australia books, videos, DVD and fiberglass systems dominate the web pages. I have bought every book and DVD available from Australia.

Glenn’s Training

My training began many years ago when I traveled to the Big Island and took the eleven days of training with Tim Mann and Susan Friend at Friendly Aquaponics for $1,200 dollars plus travel expenses. The course consisted of two days of classroom and five days living on the farm helping build a new grow bed area and doing the farm chores. And then two more days of classroom lectures. Tim set up his system after having flown to the Virgin Islands to take an aquaponics course from Dr. Rakocy of the University of the Virgin Islands. Dr. Rakocy has been studying and teaching about aquaponics systems for many years.

After training, I flew home and began building our system. Two weeks into building the Olomana Gardens aquaponics system, I got the word that Dr. Rakocy, of Virgin Island fame, was going to teach a special course on Pacific island Aquaponics in Brisbane Australia. So I flew down and took five days of lectures and field trips with ten other students from around the world. The Australian aquaponics people also presented their innovative versions of the vegetable growing beds, particularly the ebb-flow versus the float bed systems. Then I spent two days traveling to every Aquaponic farm in the greater Brisbane area. It cost $1,800 for the courses, $800 for the airfare and $1,200 for the hotel plus other travel expenses.

 Upon my return home to Oahu, I refined my design and got eight grow beds installed and running and purchased the materials to build 30 more and two 100 foot long grow beds. As of mid March, 2009, Olomana Gardens has now been growing in our new system for about a month and things are looking very promising. Fish are doing fine, and plants are healthy and taste great.

Setting up an aquaponics system involves the integration of animal husbandry, water chemistry and microbiology, physics and engineering, plumbing, and knowing enough to design the system and select the equipment for energy-efficient pumping and oxygenation.

I am already serving as the consultant for a large system at private school on the Big Island, and also for the Institute for Human Services Women’s Shelter in Honolulu that will be setting up a roof-top garden.

Olomana Gardens is pleased to be offering tours, introductory classes and more advanced, hands-on classes in Aquaponics here at Olomana Gardens throughout the summer of 2009. See details on our CLASSES page, or emailolomanagardens@hawaii.rr.comorcall259-0223 ifinterested.

What’s Good About Aquaponics

  • Recycles water and nutrients – environmentally friendly. Uses 90% less water than ground crops.
  • Eliminates chemicals and pesticides.
  • Eliminates soil-bourne diseases.
  • Is a sustainable source of fish and vegetables at your back door.
  • Is a family activity that promotes healthy eating and helps to stretch food budgets.
  • Provides a great way to teach children how to grow food and care for living things. Vegetables can be organic from day one, instead of waiting several years to certifiy land where herbicides, pesticides and non-organic fertilizers have been used.
  • Fish can be organic if natural biological feeds like soldier fly larvae or azolla are used as feed. Can be scaled up to a small or large profitable, production farm.

Below are a few photos of healthy, vibrant, organic vegetables growing in our flood/drain aquaponic grow beds. The plants are growing in volcanic cinder rock in a square fiberglas tank (4′ square). Nutrient ladened water “gravity flows” 24 hours a day into the beds from the fish tank. The cinder rock is about 1 foot in depth and basically it supports the plant roots. The cinder bed also functions as a biological filter for the water.

Nitrifying bacteria in the bed convert the ammonia and waste from the fish water into nitrates which can be utilized by the plants. A bell siphon in the corner of the grow bed automatically begins draining the water from the bed when the water level rises to a level about 2″ below the surface of the cinder. The beds fill and empty

every 15 minutes. The filtered water drains from the beds down to a sump tank from which it is pumped back up to the fish tank and the cycle begins again.

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